December 11, 2018

Sitting Shivah in Parkland

Women react during a candlelight vigil for victims of yesterday's shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

I never imagined that my Shabbat sermon in Los Angeles would lead me straight to Parkland to make shivah calls with grieving families. Here’s how it happened and what I learned.

In my Shabbat sermon, I spoke about the purpose of God’s hiddenness in the Megilah. From there I reflected on the horrific tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., where 17 innocent people were brutally murdered. After my sermon, the chairman of Yeshivat Yavneh, where I am Dean of School, approached me and suggested we go beyond the lecture: Why not take some eighth-graders to visit the families sitting shivah in Parkland?

This was unexpected, but he was right. Judaism is not just a religion of ideas, it’s also a religion of action. We decided to take Estee Einhorn, our daughter, and Benjamin Rubin, David and Gitel Rubin’s son. They both lived with a shivah this year as my wife recently sat shivah for her mother, and David sat shivah for his father. Perhaps a little of what they experienced would help them process what they would witness in Florida.

We took the red eye to Fort Lauderdale on the night of Feb. 18 and hit the ground running at 6 a.m. Feb. 19. We got off the plane and started our experience with a visit to the school. It was beginning to get real. The memorials, wreaths, press and candles laid out in front of a giant school immediately drew us in to the scene of the crime. We carefully read the testimonies and letters of love laid out in front of a picture of each child killed. At that moment, our heart was officially in Parkland.

Next we went to the Chabad of Parkland to pray. It seemed like the appropriate way to start our morning. Rumor had it some family members were going to be there. They never showed. The Chabad rabbi said, “Last night was just a very difficult night; nobody was going to join this morning.”

And then it was time. We made our way from shivah to shivah. The pain, the suffering, the anger and resilience all filled the air. We did what we needed to do. We were there to support, experience and become the sounding board for their pain.

The best response in the face of unspeakable tragedy is exactly that — to unspeak.

There is so much to say and describe about these individuals, the lives they led, and the world they leave behind. But I will simply share a few impressions we walked away with:

1. Diversity. It was unexpected to see how the grieving process varied among people who suffered the same tragedy. Some were in a state of shock, some were in activist mode, others were in a state of deep reflection.

2. There’s a chance that we may have witnessed history. More specifically, we may have been witnessing how law and policy really start to change. Our history teachers may educate us on the three causes of the Civil War, but often there are less-noticed triggering events that set off the actual sea changes. I witnessed family members actively engaging lobbyists and lawyers, instructing to use the emotional moment to create significant change in our gun control laws.

3. Our children learned how sometimes the best response in the face of unspeakable tragedy is exactly that — to unspeak. Silence, comfort and a hug.

4. Evil is possible in the middle of paradise. Parkland and the greater Broward Country is just stunning. The blue sky and deep white clouds almost look too good to be real. Many of the houses are gorgeous, with surrounding lakes and everglades and Roman fountains. In the middle of this paradise, the worst kind of evil entered and darkened the heart of a community.

5. In times of darkness, it’s OK to break the rules. When we landed, we found out that the shivah times we were given were wrong. The shivahs would only be open to the public after we would be on our way back to Los Angeles. That didn’t stop us. If they don’t want to see us, they can tell us to leave, and that’s fine. But no one did. We were welcomed at every shivah call.

Our experience taught us that, when people are in pain, sometimes the biggest mitzvah is just to show up.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is Dean of School at Yeshivat Yavneh.

‘I Saw Kids Running and Screaming’: Parkland Rabbi Confronts Horror Scene

The Jewish community in the south Florida suburb of Parkland was devastated last week when four Jewish students and one Jewish teacher – nearly one-third of the casualties – were murdered in the massacre of 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

They are mourning the Feb. 14 deaths of

· Ninth-grader Alyssa Alhadeff

· Ninth-grader Jaime Guttenberg

· Ninth-grader Alexander Schachter

· Senior Meadow Pollack

· Geography teacher and cross country coach Scott Beigel, 35, a hero of the tragedy, killed while trying to slam shut the door of a room where students were hiding.

Shmuley Bifton, rabbi of the largest synagogue in Parkland, a city where Jews have a strong presence, rushed to the campus, two minutes away, as soon as he received a text.

Ever since, the Chabad rabbi has been comforting frightened youngsters and rattled families almost without relief.

No, said Rabbi Bifton, he is not reliving the terrifying scene in his mind as many near-miss students and their families may be doing.

“Honestly, I have not had time to process it myself,” he said during a Saturday night interview. “I am just running now, burying the dead, dealing with the funerals and the shiva houses. I have not had a moment to stop.”

A Florida native who has led Chabad of Parkland for 17 years, Rabbi Bifton said of the community of 31,000:

“This is a very small town, one high school, one middle school.  Everyone knows everyone.

“There are 4,000 Jewish families, and about 500 of them are members of Chabad.”

According to the rabbi, about a third of the high school’s 3,000 students are Jews.

“There is not much you can say. This is a community tragedy…but we will not be defined by this tragedy. We will be defined by our response.”


It was a quiet early Wednesday afternoon, while Rabbi Bifton was working in his office around the corner from the school, when he received a text asking if he knew what was happening over at Douglas. He didn’t.

“But I heard helicopters overhead and sirens blaring. I realized I had to get there quick. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew I had to get there.”

As a chaplain for the Broward County Sheriff’s office, Rabbi Bifton was permitted to hurry directly to the front lines of the terror.

“I saw kids running and screaming,” he said. “Parents were running toward the area trying to find their kids. Mass chaos.”

The rabbi’s voice seemed to quiver as he continued to describe the harrowing scene. “Being that I know so many of the students, so many of the parents, they were running over to me. I was trying to call parents, and parents were finding me. I was trying to get ahold of the kids and reunite them with their parents, and get a grip on what was going on. I was speaking to kids who were just absolutely shocked. There was absolute chaos at the moment.”

Rabbi Bifton was asked about a rabbi’s role in this kind of crisis. “At times of tragedy and grief, people turn toward spirituality,” he said. “They are looking for uplifting.”

The rabbi said “Chabad is very well accepted in this community. Two city commissioners and the sheriff are members of Chabad.

“We are very well connected. So naturally we become almost like running point as far as a lot of the recovery, the response, the funerals, the shiva.”

He said Parkland has been ranked as Florida’s safest community numerous times.

Although mass shootings are not new, such a scene as last week’s “never crossed my mind.”

As for comforting those who are grieving, “there is not much you can say. We don’t have the answers. This is a community tragedy. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder. We are going to take real action to make change in our community. We will be there a long time for the recovery.

“Parkland,” Rabbi Bifton vowed, “will not be defined by this tragedy. We will be defined by our response.”